Champagne and other things

Champagne and other matters

Watching a soccer match on the television last night, from the Stadium at Rheims, France, recalled to mind one of my (our) experiences as a youngish married couple.
We were underway on one of our many "unofficial" trips, from Germany, and our aim had been to go to Paris, from Berlin, tracing the steps of a famous German Landau coach driver "Gustaf" (a landau coach was a sort of open horse drawn taxi of the 19th Century)
Not having such a vehicle of that nature, we were doing it in our 23 year old Triumph Spitfire, with a canvas top, foldable back when the sun shone, so that made us almost identical to "Gustaf" except that we had a few horses more (which often didn't work) but we did have an open carriage, if I went faster than about 90km/h, because the press studs which held the canvas cover on were weary, and popped open at the wind force created at over 90km/h. Many a time we had to stop and go back to get the thing which had simply blown off.
Anyway, we had our nose aimed for Paris, the city of Light, when we had the misfortune to pass over (or almost) one of those famous French road/railway crossings, at a speed very slightly over walking pace.
Helas! Our poor, tired out and weary Spitfire's front axle couldn't take this Gallic form of torture, and broke in two.
Looking up at the road sign just after this not so "level crossing" we found that we were around 5km's from a City called Rheims, and a very helpful Frenchman who had stopped, arranged for us to be taken to the nearest workshop, together with our sparse luggage.
This "workshop" turned out to be a sort of "modern at the time" French bicycle and scooter repair place, at the very entry to Rheims, but the owner told us there was no problem, he had a large knowledge of British Racing Cars, and he saw no problem to simply changing an axle or two!
Was the car in Racing Green - he frantically wished to know (and it was, actually) where was it (and we told him). A large beam came over his face, and he told us he knew the spot exactly. I had the distinct impression that this was not the first time this "level-train crossing" had obtained customers for him, but what was one to do?
It was early in the New Year, it was cold (climate change hadn't yet happened) the area "Champagne" in which Rheims finds itself, is and was noted for two things - Sparkling wine and rain/drizzle.
First things first we decided. It was a Friday, to top it all, and as the owner informed us, no way to repair the Spitfire before at least Tuesday of the following week - he would willingly work over the weekend, but to get the parts wouldn't be possible until Monday at the earliest.
We needed a Hotel, and our aimable Garagiste informed us, he had a friend who ran just that! Oh - nothing fancy, in the older part of the City, but not at all expensive.Would we like him to take us there, and on the way back hitch up our poor Spitfire and tow it back for repair?
Well, it all seemed logical, "above board" - even if I was still a little suspicious of this train crossing and the Garagist's relations towards it!
Why, after all, we reasoned, shouldn't somebody have some good from our misfortune? It never happened to us, but that's another story!
So we piled our luggage and ourselves into our Garagist's "2cv" (I think the only car on the French roads at the time, with a suspension which feared not the level crossings in that charming country, and which drank anything-like the inhabitants of the epoch)), a little crowded but pleased at least to have avoided the same thing under the camouflage of "Taxi", costing a small fortune!
We passed through the crowded streets of Rheims, at the time trafic on the roads was smaller, but made more hazardous by the driving styles (no driving license existed at this time) and the presence of thousands of pedestrians and bicyclists.
Night was falling, and, even then, the lights were a pleasant sight, quite romantic really, and finally arrived with a screech, outside an unassuming doorway, over the top of which was marked, in fading red lights "Pension-Hotel". Actually it was marked " P__sion- Ho_el" due to certain of the bulbs not having been changed since the invention of electricity.
My wife, always quick with her humour, even in dread circumstances, suggested that the real name was probably "Passion Hotel" - little did she know how right she was!
Our Garagist introduced us to a largish lady, dressed in flamboyant clothes, explained the situation, and disappeared with a Gallic enthousiasm to search for our Spitfire.
We followed our lady, with many petticoats, up to a sort of attic room, an artist's paradise, where she explained to us that the price, with breakfast, was 15 Francs a day, breakfast being served in the room. A very reasonable rate, we found, and she further explained that this was the best room in the hotel, because it avoided the constant comings and goings in the lower levels of the building.
She also explained that she, in her turn, had a friend who worked (in a high position) for one of Rheims world renowned Champagne producers, and she would arrange with him for us to have an invitation to visit, should we wish.
We found all this attention very pleasing, but there being no Restaurant, we asked where we could eat, to which she replied that she had many friends in the quarter who had small restaurants, of good quality, and small prices. She would make up a list, and give us a little note, handwritten, to show to the owners. This, she assured us, would give us the best attention, and probably a little glass or two of cognac or whatever, before and after our meals. We profusely expressed our gratitude, and set about installing ourselves for what would turn out to be no fewer than 8 days, but very agreeable days, within the walls of this establishment.

Finally, having installed our few affairs, and struggled to wash (only those parts necessary) in the small sink, we went down the narrow, winding stairs from our fourth floor attic to the street door, being handed our "welcome" letter, and the information that our visit had been arranged for Monday to the Champagne Cellars of "Mumms & Co", the weekend, even in winter being too full of Tourists for some of Madame's "best" customers. We would be the only one's there, she said, and this had the advantage, according to her, that since a bottle of Champagne couldn't be recorked, we would have the pleasure of a full bottle at the tasting with her friend.
Thanking her excessively, we left to explore the darkened streets of Rheims.
After a wander through the charming little streets and passages, full of life and wonderful looking things to eat and drink, we found ourselves outside the first of our "Madame's" restaurants, and found that she hadn't exaggerated when she described her Restaurants as "modest". In fact, anywhere else, outside of France, ALL the places we eventually went to would have been closed down by the health authorities - wrongly as it turned out. Nowadays "outside" hygiene covers up a multitude of sins in the back kitchens, and I have since been to famous luxurious Restaurants and Hotels, worldwide, where one didn't ask where the toilet was, one followed one's nose!
All Madame's places had a similar odour, a mixture of desinfectant and wonderful food odours.
This first evening was probably amongst one of my life's events, not only in food and drink matters, but in other areas as well.
Remember, we were coming from Germany, where the food, although digestible and reasonable, was not inventive. "Schnitzel land" it was called, even by the German's themselves, and we were originally from Britain, with compressable sliced bread amongst other undescribable things!
This evening, however, we were presented with things we knew, things we didn't know, things we had heard about, things we hadn't heard about.
It all started, and beleive it - or beleive it not, at a table covered with the now "modern bistro" style tablecloth, red and black checkered, with a simple household candle and ashtray as decoration, with a selection of little things to munch away at, before starting to eat.
Maybe it was the surroundings, with the odour of Gauloise cigarettes in the air, and the chatter of French voices around the bar, maybe the presence of people at ease, after having finished work for a weekend (although Saturdays's were still very much a working day at the time), maybe the lingering odours of good food, maybe our relaxing after a difficult day, maybe the presence of my wife, I don't know, but I wouldn't have swapped my situation (even with an ill vehicle) for anything!
People from the bar would saunter across from time to time, exchange a few words with us (which we could reply to), pinch a bit of our little "munchables" only to come back with yet another "apero" for us, accompanied by some more "munchables".
My God - I wish I was back there right now - in fact I regret having ever left!
At some period or other, I suggested to my wife that maybe we should start eating seriously, either that or we would make our endless "munchables" and free Aperos our Friday evening meal!
So we started. That undescribable bread, golden, crusty, delicious- ripped open by hand, and not clinically cut with a knife.
Caressed with country pate (home made and not industrial muck), with a simple slice of tomato in vinaigrette - tomatoes that actually tasted of tomato - with a little piece of country raw smoked ham, what a feast!
All that, and more, on our plate of "charcuterie" and "cruditees".
No pressure, we're NOT going to close the place until every one has finished, and even then the personnel will start eating!
A simple little fish filet traced with a little sauce of wonderful taste, and clean up your plate with bits of wonderful bread, which kept coming in unlimited quantities, and always seemed to be freshly out of the baker's ovens. A marvel, a miracle, a dream.
Proceeded by it's odour, our main course arrived, that succulent piece of entrecote, nicely rare, with the odour of charcoal grilled, a few grilled onions, a green salad, some "pommes-frites", left untouched to profit from the dipping of the bread in the juices of the meat.
Of course everybody was eating in the same fashion, and the bar was empty. Even conversation had slowly died down, always a good sign in any eating place - the only activity at the bar was the coming and going of the servers (the patron and his wife) with countless bottles of simple wine, red, rose and white, depending on the stage of developement at each table.
A rare carafe of water was refilled, not being the preferred drink of the French of the epoch, and discussions took place at each table in turn, about the merits of this dish or that, this wine or that.
This was the REAL France, now long gone, where every client was an expert, and treated as such.
The odours of Gauloises or Gitanes still drifted over, merging into the odour of the good food.
All forbidden nowadays.
Finally, the inevitable cheese platter, unequalled anywhere else in the world, more bread, and a little "flan" (the normal custard cream with caramel sauce, but made with fresh cream and fresh eggs, and not out of a tin or packet).
Round all this off with a small cup of strong coffee, a Gauloises, and we thought our first evening in Rheims had gone well, and we were "expansive".
Our first evening in Rheims was far from finished!
Dinner being "officially" ended, the rest of the evening, or rather, night and early morning, was given up to the tales and reflexions one only finds in French places, how food has changed over the years, how much better it used to be (nowadays they are all turning in their graves seeing the muck we eat), the qualities of this wine or that wine, and of course, being in Rheims (Champagne-Ardennes) the topic turned to that famous sparkling wine.
I was to return some years later, to work on a sponsored Catering Course in the caves of Champagne, turning bottles for days (not at Mumms, but with a smaller producer) and I was always presented with the same enthusiasm for the local product, but this evening/night was our first confrontation with the phenomenon!
The merits of one Production system against another, the merits of one Producer against another, should Pink or Rose Champagne be taken seriously, did it not ruin Champagne to provide a "demi-sec" (with added sugar syrup) and so on.........
At the time, car licences didn't exist, and nobody had remotely dreamed of the effects of Alcohol at the wheel of a vehicle, and anyway - we didn't have a car at the moment - remember?
Just as well, because all these points of debate had to displayed with the particular Champagne concerned actually on show, and in our glasses! Since (as Madame had already said) a bottle of Champagne couldn't be recorked, this made for a jolly time!
When we visited the Mumms caves, it was the same, and Madame's special friend even told us that if we only stuck to Champagne all evening and night, we could not get drunk! Somehow I doubt the truth of that statement, but we certainly tried it out this particular night! Unfortunately we had already drunk other things that evening..................
Another thing which was evident, and has now all but disappeared, it was considered normal that the locals ordered, payed for and served their own particular favourite, and the Patron, with Wife, arranged quickly, some little thing or other on a plate, just to accompany the particular Champagne in question.
One time it was the little "rose" biscuits, made in Rheims specially to accompany Pink Champagne or Demi Sec Champagne, then again it was a little dish of dried biscuit wafers, just to clean the palate. My own favourite was the little rounds of still fresh bread, with some of the local goats cheese spread on it, to accompany one particular Champagne brut.
We were a little at odds with ourselves, for we didn't want to be seen as miserly, but in the midst of all these experts, it was difficult to choose something to offer!
The Patron had scented our difficulty, and with a familiarity born out of the fact that we knew each other now for about 5 hours, he proposed to me (aside) a rather special Vintage Champagne he had in the cellar. I was obliged to go behind the bar and descend some dizzily steep steps, to enter the "holy of Holies" - the cave hacked out of the chalk stone centuries ago!
With wonder, I and my wife regarded this place, with awe and respect for the people who had put this nectar into bottles, well knowing that they would never drink it - they would be long gone before these bottles would be opened.
We had to choose one, no arguing about the price was permitted (extremely reasonable, in view of the wine concerned and the evening being passed) and the Patron shouted a number up to his wife, who started immediately to prepare her little plate of goodies to go with our choice.
After a little while looking around the cave, littered with candle butts, on saucers, dating from Noah's time, we went back up to the Bar, where the merits of some other producers and this "abominable new stuff from Italy" were being loudly debated.
So the night was long, and when we finally left, it was like leaving long standing friends, with Gallic kisses all round.
As we had explained, we didn't want to disturb the peace and tranquility of the other guests at our Hotel on our first night.
This, for some reason, brought hefty guffaws of laughter from the males in the bar, and a wagging finger with a "tut-tut" from Madame!
We couldn't understand it, until we got back to our hotel-pension, around 3am, to find all the lights working, and then some!
The entry was surrounded by people, all milling around, and Madame- spotting us on arrival, forced her way towards us, with no tender clips around the ears for the men and women in her path, and escorted us to the entrance and up the stairs.
Having ensured that we had been received "correctly" by her Restaurant friends, she proposed a last glass, which we declined, and she wished us "Bonne Nuit" and redescended into the Hell below.
Inside the Hotel-Pension, it was quite peaceful, apart from the click-click of high heel shoes, with the clump-clump of male footwear, which came on a regular basis, all night long!
I didn't count the time spent in the rooms below us, I thought that was not the "correct" thing to do, but we did realise that we had indeed found the
The sun rose, and pierced the early mists, although it wasn't really so very early.
Today was basically our last one in Reims, Capital of Champagne, where we had passed a "long-weekend" - involuntarily (if you recall where I left off, last time) but of an extremely high quality, thanks to our newly found friends, Mr Roger (who was our mechanic-in charge of repairing our aging Triumph Spitfire car) and "Madame" who was our concierge at the brothel we were installed in! She was the person we had to thank that our involuntary stay had been a magnificent success. Far from being the "heart of gold", she knew how to get the last centime out of the pockets of men, but somehow she gave me the impression that this unexpected arrival of a young couple, married and happy to be so, had touched her hard and well worn heart. I suppose it changed the dull, daily routine of prostitutes and their clients, and maybe gave a little of her youth back!
In any case, I would always be prepared to go through another long weekend again, under the same circumstances, but I doubt that this would ever be possible, even for anyone else, nowadays!
Madame had not even blinked an eyebrowe, when I had decided that the breakfast of croissants and other things, although delicious, was not what I wanted that morning  - I had my heart set on a still warm, crispy baguette, with lots of butter, and I had set off early to find the required items, thinking that, after the excesses of the night before, we would see Madame arising out of the ashes a little later than normal!
No way - when I returned, out of good taste trying to hide my large baguette under my overcoat, to avoid questions, I found myself presented with Madame and a large beam, and questions about breakfast. A frank look at the bulge under my overcoat passed without comment, apart from "You don't want jam with it, do you - more butter would be maybe better!"
I tried to explain, and I beleive she understood, because she knew that we were extremely happy with her efforts concerning us, and our weekend!
Indeed, a culinary weekend of magnificence, thanks to her, and her friends, but also thanks to our own efforts to master the language and the situation!
With a final "we'll be going to your Champagne visit this morning, and thanks ever so", I tried to get up the stairs, past the young lady with the coffee, croissants, jam and butter etc........ She also wasn't particularly surprised by the bulge under my overcoat, and gave me a wink and a smile! Charming at around 7am, and I often wonder if life wouldn't have been more agreeable to have stayed there for the next 60 years!
Madame simply said "The car will be here at 10.30, but there's no rush - Bonne appetit!"
Well, our fresh crispy bread demolished, all our jam and butter, even the croissants and coffee gone, we finally made surface around 10am, my wife being caressed by Madame, and being told she would have a lovely day with her husband (me), and that these little things like car problems happened, and not to be disturbed. I think my wife was more concerned, at that moment, by the fact that we would have to leave this paradise early the next morning - Just like me!
Anyway, the Mumms Champagne car had turned up, and we were escorted, just like Royalty, down the battered and well worn steps of our Brothel Hotel, off for a day of dreams!
The first thing I noticed, on arriving at the "House of Mumm's" Champagne, was the tidyness, the clean courtyard, which after the old quarter of the City of Reims was totally different. The second thing I noticed was the attention given to client's of "Madame".
We were swept along, and we were given a tour of the property second to none.
We were the only one's, as Madame had promised, and time was taken to explain, in great detail, every single procedure in the fabrication of that stuff called "Champagne".
We followed it's developement from the Dom Perignon discovery to the current (at the time) usage!
We got to taste the original, basic, undrinkable wine of the Champagne district, BEFORE it was given the magical touch!
We were accompagnied, at all stages, with new glasses of the finished product, always being assured by our guide (a charming man around the 90 years of age-or so it seemed, but very elegant)that if we only ever stayed with Champagne for all meals and events, we would not, indeed could not, become drunk!
I thought to myself - maybe not drunk, but bankrupt!
Didn't matter on that last day in Reims, we were just too happy about EVERYTHING! On top of our visit here, we had an invitation for the lunchtime to Madam's favourite Restaurant friends, and my problem was to try and figure out where I could get a few winks, before breezily buzzing off in our newly repaired Triumph Spitfire.
Impossible to stay one more night at Madams', and leave early and fresh, the following morning, because Madame didn't understand things like going to bed early!
Finally, we ended our tour in the main reception hall of Mumm's - and even now (absolutely neutral as I am) I would always recommend Mumm's "Cordon Rouge" Brut - if ever you want to have something good in your life!
Here, we were presented with the "Visitor's Book" and asked to sign in, and probably out!
With a typically Gallic flair, our guide flipped open the large, heavy book, and said "There we are, a couple of free spaces at the bottom of the page".
I signed, with my own flair, and then noticed (as I looked politely to see who else was on the same page) that I had made my mark, once again, in History!
If you ever go to Mumm's, look in the guest books, and you'll find my signature, right there, just under "Sir Neville C. Chamberlain, 1936"!!
Wasn't my fault, I insist, just the Gallic flair of our guide.
I muttered something to my wife about it (in an undertone) but I fear it was lost, our Guide had started a procedure of opening the "official drink" after the guided tour! We had, I thought, already had just about everything possible, but as our Guide explained, it was obligatory to open a bottle of Mumm's at the end of the tour, together with the various little dry wafer biscuits, and it wasn't his fault, nor ours, that we were the only guests!
A bottle of Champagne, once opened, cannot be reclosed, and certainly not when two "so sympathetic" visitors and their guide were the only ones present!
Little did I, or my wife know, that some years later, we were to find ourselves back in the Region, this time as a part of my own course to become a "Sommelier", within my larger (paid) studies in the "Catering" Industry! Even then, I recall, the area was a revelation, and my efforts to become an oenologue successfully passed (I never used these certificate things afterwards, and even now I couldn't use it, the Industry having changed so radically) and as a qualified Sommelier/Oenologue, we left the area with many regrets!
The only other Paradise on earth, I found, was upon entering into the large storage zones of Hennessy Cognac, in Cognac - such odours, such wonderful odours!
No wonder that the best Hennessy Cognac is called "Paradise" - but that will be another story!
For the moment, we had Madam's Lunchtime to occupy us, and (as we had rather suspected) since our Guide was invited also, we only had to jump (or rather slide in a dignified manner) into the car awaiting us on our departure from this admirable place! The only thing which had not pleased us terribly, was the one and only toilet open (it was a Monday, but even so!!)
Look forward to our last moments in this wonderful "long weekend" - last lunch with Madame and her friends, pay our Hotel/Bordell bill/Car repairs bill, and where we actually DID spend the "night after" ....... All to come, shortly, on this site!

This was definately our last few hours in the "Champagne". I, and my wife, both had our various work to return to on the Tuesday, and it was a long drive back, even if our Triumph Spitfire (of a certain age) was to be given back to us (as Madame and the Garagist had assured us) in a state of "almost new"!
After the luxuries of our tour around the cellars of Mumms Champagne, a light and rather "burpy" lunch in a Reims bistro, we had been able to grab a couple of hours shuteye, which seemingly pleased our host, Madame! We had arranged an absolutely last use of our room, just for a snooze before finally leaving, and everything was "tickety-boo".
This should have warned us a little, but we were simply too tired to care.
Amazing what a couple of hours of solid sleep can achieve, and promptly, at 7pm, as commanded, we found ourselves waiting in what passed for a lobby in our "Paradise Hotel".
Invited, as we were, we had no idea where we were going to be abducted to, but after the events in the old Yugoslavia (to be read elsewhere on this Blog), we didn't really care. The main thing was that we had payed our repairs, which had been a delightful surprise, particularly the final sum, after all the additions for parts, labour, taxes and even more taxes! Madame had been given a Eurocheque for the required sum, and we were able to figure out how much was left in the bank, before we had to start working on our Credit rating!
Again! After a good half hour's waiting, which was actually quite good for French standards, we were presented with a MAGNIFICENT Madame, together with a couple of her beautiful girls, dressed to the nines, and we felt quite out of place amongst all these feathers and things!
Just a few seconds passed, before a large limousine pulled up in front of the Hotel Paradiso, with a sort of "sigh", as the brakes were applied.
We were impressed, but having got to know the relative importance of our "Madame" in Reims, we were not surprised.
We piled into the abundant space provided, and I, for one, can tell you that travel with certain ladies is NOT my cup of tea. I think I would make a lousy pimp!
The mixture of expensive perfumes was barely supportable. One at a time, they were probably wonderful, but all together, well - I would have preferred a Camembert cheese!
This was actually something I came over again, later in live, even now, when the guests at a Wedding Reception pass by my place, the odours remount to my 3rd floor window, and recall "REIMS".
The chatter went on and on, and obviously Madame and her girls knew where we were going, as did the Chauffeur. It most certainly wasn't a Restaurant, for we were driving to the outskirts of the city, in the general direction of the road we would take the following morning with our Spitfire, decidedly less comfortably installed than now!
After twenty minutes of "oozing" through the narrow streets, we saw the lights of something very large looming up in front of us.
Madame looked at us, and gave us a knowing tap on the side of one nostril! I wondered if it was a reference to the perfumes, but decided that this was the International way of saying - "Just wait and see!"
The limousine drew to a stop, and the doors were opened to screeching noise, like the hordes of Football fans made at a match, and then we realised that was exactly what it was!
We were at the Reims Football Stadium!
No way, we thought, had Madame and her girls got all dressed up to go to a football match, surely?
They wanted to go to a Football match, but not just any old football match! Reims, as we discovered, later, were at this time in the French 1st Division, and were having a long run in the French Cup competition. Tonight's game was a semi-final, against nobody less than a Paris club, and this was a matter of pride!
We thought that (if Madame's get up, and her girls dressing were anything to go by) then the Reims Club colours must be a garish thing, but once again, we were not disappointed!
Rather than following the hordes of people, with hooters and flags, and the Lord alone knows what else, they went, with obvious knowledge of the place, straight to a small door, marked "PRIVE".
We entered, and the door closed, and instant silence reigned!
We all crowded into a rather small lift, I suffered in silence the pressings and nudges of Madame and her girls, and sought the reassurance of my wife's presence (over there- behind the large shape of Madame).
Happily, the lift journey didn't take long, and we stumbled out, almost suffocated by the perfumes in such a close area, to find ourselves in a large, long room, lit by magnificent Chandeliers, and porting a very long, wide table, already set up for what must hav been at least a hundred guests. Crystal glasses sparkled under the lights, and at the far end of the long room we saw the assembled guests, gathered at the bar, consuming their Aperatifs, and various "nibbles".
Without hesitation, Madame strided out in front of us all, and was welcomed loudly,from left and right, as we ran the gauntlet.
We were finally presented to someone we roughly understood to be the "Financial" Boss of Reims Football Club, and a charming guy he was, although I wasn't too taken by the way he slobbered over my wife's hand. My wife, however, just glanced, triuphantly, in my general direction, as if to say - "See- this is MY lift"!
I was pleased to see our guide of the morning, from Mumm's Champagne, in a corner, and he waved us over. After welcoming us profusely, he once again uttered his advice .
"Stay with Champagne, and you can't get drunk!"
I cast a glance at his Pastis glass, and he shrugged his shoulders in that Gallic fashion that only a French person masters!
I won't go into the wonderful evening that we passed. It was the one and only time in my life that I found myself in such lofty places, and I felt quite at home, even if a little guilty about the thousands outside, on the terraces, freezing, whilst supporting their team (who got beaten, actually).
We didn't get to see a lot of the match, with a dozen different course to get through, it wasn't easy to pop up and down to the windows, but with the magnificent meal and wines, I felt justified in not bothering too much. My wife, in any case not "over football" - although she accompagnied me to Berlin Hertha games at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin- preferred to concentrate on her glass and her plate, whilst nodding and gesturing vaguely (in an almost Gallic manner) in answer to question posed by our table neighbours!
Frankly - it was fireworks!
We never made it back to Reims afterwards, in all our travels, and I think that may have been a good thing, for it could only have been a disappointment, after this unwanted stop-over for the weekend!
(iwmpop) mr le Marquis.